A bewitching village on the Pacific promises fairy-tale cottages and a sea of trees.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., is best surveyed on foot, especially in late fall and early winter. When the days are short and crisp and nights heavy with the scent of piney woods and the sound of crashing waves and crackling hearths, it pays to forget scenic drives—17 mile or otherwise. Instead, curb your car for the weekend to explore the meandering trails and streets of this misty village just south of Monterey.
It’s a time to walk through back-alley curio shops and courtyards and to ramble along rocky bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. Or to walk in Mission Trail Nature Preserve, the same woods where Father Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish priest and founder of California’s missions, strolled to reach Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo.
Stop at the Cheese Shop for over 300 cheeses and 850 wines. (800) 828-9463, www.cheeseshopcarmel.com .
A docent-led tour can help you get your bearings. The Carmel Heritage Society offers 90-minute walking tours on some Saturdays. You’ll learn, among other things, about George Sterling, the San Francisco poet who drew literary pals Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis to Carmel in the early 1900s. They came at first for beach feasts of abalone and gin and later took up residence after San Francisco’s 1906 quake and fire.
Along the way a volunteer docent may point out one of the few remaining "milk shrines" that were once positioned every two blocks along Ocean Avenue, the main drag. In the early 20th century, residents left cash and dairy orders in the open hutches to be exchanged every day for fresh butter, cheese, and milk. Now, as in those early days, neighbors gather at the post office to gossip. Most houses in the mile-square central hamlet are named, not numbered, and everyone who is able picks up mail from a warren of boxes on Fifth Street. The city delivers to the homebound.
Carmel photographer Gale Wrausmann leads another popular walking tour Tuesday through Saturday that covers similar ground but emphasizes the intersection of art with the town’s idiosyncrasies. For example, you’ll learn that the only grave allowed by law within city limits belongs to a dog, Pal. The wayward mutt was buried in a redwood casket near the entrance to the Forest Theater in 1943. The Forest hosts films and live productions—often accompanied by picnics in summer—at its venerated outdoor stage, as well as community theater productions year-round at a more intimate indoor venue. Each of Carmel’s four playhouses is tucked into a different residential neighborhood and is worth walking to. But bring a flashlight at night; there are few streetlights and local law prohibits neon signs. Even the Shell station has a carved wooden sign.
During the day, you can check out the art scene at Carmel’s multitude of galleries—64 in all. Peruse landscapes by early California masters such as Edgar Payne at James J. Rieser Fine Art or photography by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston at the Weston Gallery. Or start with the Carmel Art Association gallery, a 79-year-old cooperative that mounts exhibits and sells affordable pieces by 120 regional contemporary artists.
The Harrison Memorial Library, designed by Bernard Maybeck and opened in 1928, has comfy chairs you can pull up to a fireplace on cold days. Patrons with a $20 monthly pass can check out books, videos, and DVDs. On Ocean Avenue at Lincoln Street.
In a small courtyard off Ocean Avenue, you’ll find the gallery of painter Thomas Kinkade with his trademark depictions of glowing English cottages. Long before Kinkade found an adoring public for his painted fantasies, early-20th-century architect Hugh Comstock was building the same sort of fairy-tale structure. Pitched gable roofs, crooked stone chimneys, and hand-hewn wood trim around elfin windows and doors typify the Comstock cottages, which are scattered throughout town.
More beguiling than storybook cottages are the city’s trees. Some 31,000 of them form a sheltering canopy of pines, giant cypresses, and live oaks that rustle and sway with the softest breeze. Many of the largest trees in the urban forest were planted in the dunes more than 100 years ago by early townsfolk who understood the allure of nature and art.
Photography courtesy Carmel-by-the-Sea
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may
have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA’s Northern California & Nevada TourBook and the Monterey and Carmel-Monterey maps. Down-load Carmel-Monterey and Vicinity and Monterey Bay maps at aaa.com  (click on Maps & Directions). For more information and maps, visit the Carmel Visitor Center on San Carlos Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues: (831) 624-2522, www.carmelcalifornia.org . Area code is 831 unless noted.
THE PLAY’S (OR CONCERT'S) THE THING
Carmel Music Society presents classical performances. 625-9938, www.carmelmusic.org . For a calendar of current and upcoming productions in the area, check with the Monterey County Theatre Alliance at www.mctaweb.org . Sunset Center offers music, dance, and theater throughout the year. 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org .
Carmel Walks 642-2700, www.carmelwalks.com .
Casanova French-Italian cuisine. Fifth Avenue between Mission and San Carlos streets, 625-0501, www.casanovarestaurant.com . Flying Fish Grill Fresh seafood. Carmel Plaza on Mission Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues, 625-1962. La Bicyclette Restaurant The Belgian brothers who own Casanova recently opened this café with a more limited menu, serving three-course gems. Dolores Street and Seventh Avenue, 622-9899, www.labicycletterestaurant.com . The two restaurants share a wine cellar of about 30,000 bottles.
Cypress Inn $195–$550. Actress Doris Day co-owns this pet-friendly hotel. Take high tea in the Day Room and view classic movies. Lincoln Street at Seventh Avenue, (800) 443-7443, www.cypress-inn.com . Happy Landing Inn $95–$185. A 1926 Hugh Comstock creation, designed around a central garden; private entries and some fireplaces. Monte Verde Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 624-7917. Pine Inn $149–$309. Dining and drinks at the popular Il Fornaio restaurant on the first floor. Ocean Avenue between Lincoln and Monte Verde streets, (800) 228-3851, www.pineinn.com .
Inns of Distinction Tour December 3. Stroll through about a dozen hostelries festooned with holiday finery and offering tasty treats from local restaurants and vineyards. 624-4447, www.carmelheritage.org . Tor House On Fridays and Saturdays docents lead tours of poet Robinson Jeffers's home. Call for information and reservations. 26304 Ocean View Ave., 624-1813, www.torhouse.org .